Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Rules Are Made For Breaking

In the world of role-playing games, there are generally two sets of attitudes about game rules. One is that they are inviolate, and must be obeyed to the degree that "rules" like the law of gravity are obeyed in reality. Another is a more..."flexible" approach. For those of the latter camp, this list of the "The 10 Most Insane Old School Dungeons & Dragons Rules" is for you. My friends and I were definitely of the latter school of rule-non-adherence, and although we spent the majority of time playing RPGs other than D&D, the willingness to ignore game rules would carry easily from one game to the next. You should read the whole thing of course, but here are the two rules that I think are especially applicable to us:

3) Material Components

Ah yes, the rule that turned all magic-users into ghoulish souvenir-hunters and gem-hoarders. This is one of those rules that some DMs used just to piss their players off--I mean, Identify is one of the most common spells cast by Magic-Users, and the material components are a 100gp pearl, and an infusion of an owl feather in wine with a miniature carp both swallowed whole. (Minature carp? Is that even a thing?) And at higher levels, the components get ridiculously expensive -- Shape Change requires a jade circlet worth at least 5000gp, Duo-Dimension requires a similar ivory cameo of the caster worth 5000-10000 gp, and even the fifth-level Wall of Force requires a "pinch" of diamond dust. It's pretty ridiculous, and with all the weird stuff that wizards would have to cart around for all their spells--gloves for the Bigby spells, balls of guano and sulphur for Fireballs, and rotten eggs for Stinking Cloud (you don't really even have to cast the spell--just throw the damn egg) -- it's surprising that Magic-Users in D&D don't come across more as the fantasy equivalent of cart-pushing bag ladies.

I think this rule was so generally despised that later games that incorporated magic sought ways of avoiding it's application entirely. Shadowrun is one example, as the game adopted the more "modern" (as in 16th century and on) approach to spell-casting involving recitations and vigorous hand and arm waving. Other games like Warhammer, which we played frequently, did not. I can honestly say that we never adhered to this rule...except of course when the DM/GM grew frustrated or enraged with us and was determined to punish our magic users with a completely arbitrary enforcement of rules we had heretofore ignored (see this early post for more on the theme of GM as capricious deity.) That didn't happen often, but I can remember more than one incident where a surly player was met with the inconvenience of having to dig through his character sheet's "equipment" column to see if he might somehow have thought to stock up on eye of newt or goat testicle the last time he was in town. 

2) Encumbrance

The ultimate rule that almost no one played with. There's no denying that it makes sense -- if you're striving for realism, there's no way that your character is carrying around much gold at all, especially if you're a thief relying primarily on stealth and agility. And especially in that case, encumbrance rules are pretty generous. But still, they're a pain, and most groups tended to fall in to one of three categories: those that ignored it completely, those that really only paid attention to it when it was egregious, and those that were granted a plethora of bags of holding in order to "realistically" be able to ignore it completely. And why? Because it's a dumb, real-life rule that gets in the way of, you know, actually having fun. It's the same reason most characters are still carrying around that one-week supply of iron rations, and generally don't worry about food unless they're in a tavern. It's the same reason that there aren't rules for potty breaks in the dungeon. It's the same reason there's not a table for seeing if you have a stiff neck from sleeping on a dungeon floor. Because it's a game.

Now this rule we sort of adhered to. I say sort of because we adhered to a less stringent, but still common-sensical, approach. That is, we ignored encumbrance points totals as a limitation on how much we could carry, but did pause to consider exactly how much a 350-lb troll vs. a 175-lb human could carry. Generally this only pertained to us in the matter of weaponry, as our weapons were really the only thing that either us as PCs or the GM bothered to really care that much about (since our characters never ate, slept, or changed clothes, there really wasn't much else to have to worry about.) In this matter encumbrance limitations did play a bit of a role, since we generally attempted to carry far more weapons than anyone could actually use in even a fantasy combat situation; a crossbow to "soften up" the target, an "extra" sword in case ours broke, several knives hidden cleverly in case we were disarmed, and possibly a staff when we didn't want to inflict a mortal wound. In truth this rule came more into play in games like Shadowrun, in which we relied upon more modern armaments. This is for a couple of reasons; for one, a .50 caliber automatic weapon is considerably more difficult to hide under a cloak, and two, we did not consider it unreasonable to enter a potential combat situation with 3,000 rounds of ammo on our person (given the way that we played, this actually was not unreasonable or unwise.) Generally speaking we got a free pass on ammo (bullets aren't that big, right?) but we definitely obeyed restrictions on how large of a weapon we could expect to carry around. For example, mortars were a definite no-no (unless they were mounted in a vehicle, of course.)

We were also aided by the fact that D&D (and some other fantasy games) are blessed with the legendary "bag of holding." If you don't know, the bag of holding is essentially a cloth bag that serves as a portal to another dimension, wherein all the items you place in the bag are stored. This allows players to carry an essentially limitless amount of goods on their person, with the only real limitation being the size of the mouth of the bag (which would not usually permit you to carry around something like say, a wood fort.) This allowed us to ignore even common-sense limitations on how much you could carry though again, for us at least, the bag of holding mostly served as a personal and portable armory. Because the bag of holding makes the jobs of both the PCs and GM much easier (no need to haggle over how many swords fit on one belt) they become fairly ubiquitous in RPG campaigns, such that they were among the first of items to be obtained by first-level players. And without too much trouble at that, because of course it makes complete sense that your local two-bit arms seller/pawn shop owner would carry a variety of cloth bags that connect to other dimensions.